For the sake of honour

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Honour is one of those words that gets bandied about rather a lot. Sometimes it’s used just as a label, as in the Honours of Scotland; ‘it wasn’t me, Your Honour’; and ‘she gave him a gong in the Honours’. We also talk about ‘honour’ killings, as well as Honorary degrees. But what does it mean when we say things like: ‘I’m honoured to meet you;’ ‘I promise on my honour;’ or even ‘wilt thou love her, comfort her, honour, and keep her?’ These usages seems to invoke a sense of respect and virtue, something that is more about an orientation or a behaviour.

Honour is one of those old-fashioned words, like manners. But when we use it of someone, we refer to that rather rare and durable characteristic of their being reliably moral. We think people are honourable if they do the right thing. We tend to notice it all the more if it proves costly: our mental picture is probably of a tweedy and stoic English gent standing on a lonely pier, waving goodbye to his true love because she deserves better. So is honour as outdated as curtsying to cakes, and should we have none of it? On the contrary, we need honour more than ever, and we need to start teaching it to our children again. Read More

30 days hath September…

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30 days hath September,

April, June and November,

All the rest have 31,

Excepting February alone.

Which has but 28 days clear

And 29 in each leap year.

I was at school with a leap year baby. She had to make her own birthday badges with the quarters written in each year. When we hit 18, we used to tell the barman not to serve her, because she was only 5 and a half.

And time is a funny thing. It’s all relative, says Einstein. It certainly is if you live on Mercury, where a bad day at the office would actually last 2 earth years. Even here, noon differs. Today in Inverness high noon is due at 1306 hrs, a full 16 minutes after high noon in London. So when Big Ben does chime, he’s actually fast. That’s one of the reasons we need the radio, to keep us all in time. Every train station used to use its own local time, so you can imagine the chaos before they introduced Railway Time in 1840, base-lined on Greenwich.

We like to imagine time is a constant, because we like to imagine we can manage time. But of course we can’t, we can only ever manage ourselves. The clock will tick on, whether we ‘waste’ time or ‘spend’ it wisely. The average person will use up 25 years of their life sleeping, which has already wiped out quite a lot of your allotted span.

What will you do with the rest of it? Graveyards are full of messages from the dead to the living about that: Tempus Fugit – time flies – or Carpe Diem – seize the day. It’s so easy to feel in a rush. If only I had more time! I’m so busy! But when I relax a little about time, and notice its quixotic personality, I can enjoy the time passing a little more. That’s another poem I learned at school: What is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare?

And perhaps none of us really need to be in quite such a hurry. After all, oak trees in the forest don’t usually produce acorns until they are 50 years old. We may yet still have all the time in the world…

Managing Risk: by Spreadsheet or Emotion?

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Ethics is often seen to be a luxury, or a nice-to-have; if deployed suitably publicly, it might enhance an organisation’s licence to operate, or give their brand a virtuous glow. The business case for ethics is, however, less cynical and more strategic: it’s not so much about brand personality than it is about risk.

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Is it worth being a nasty boss?

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This week I was struck by a piece in the FT arguing that “nasty leaders can be successful – if they don’t cross the line.’ The piece described some bullies who had seemingly produced excellent results, and who were not as unpopular as their behaviour might suggest. The article was careful not to suggest bullying as a strategy, of course, but the subtext is clear. If you get results, you can usually ‘get away’ with bad behaviour.

And we know this to be true, because we see it every day in our organisations, both public and private, and in politics as much as in the professions. But before you nod sadly and move swiftly on, please stop for a moment. You are being had. This is classic ‘end justifies the means’ morality, and we are so used to it as the prevailing ethical narrative that it seems irrefutable and unremarkable. Read More

Diogenes Small, RIP

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I discovered how easy it is to get a book dedicated to you when I was about 13. All you have to do is ​gather your sisters, and gang up on ​his best mate at ​your grandfather’s funeral. And hey presto, The Secret of Annex 3, by Colin Dexter, for Elizabeth, Anna and Eve. Read More

Leadersmithing – TEDx Durham University

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Speech at TEDx, Durham, 11th March 2017 (watch here)

Hello. You’re probably wondering what’s with the pearls. Well, pearls have a dirty secret, and I’m here to tell you about it. It’s all about the pearls. So if you only remember one thing about this talk, remember the pearls.

Pearls are associated with such glamour, aren’t they? I inherited my first set, from a great grandmother who had been brought up at Hampton Court Palace. My second set were from Hatton Garden, given to me by my boyfriend when we worked next door at Deloitte Consulting. I bought my third set in Beijing when I took our Ashridge MBA students out there on a study trip.

But their glamour is hard-won. They have grit in their hearts. Their beauty and lustre is the result of a defence mechanism, designed to protect the oyster against a threatening irritant. I’m from Scotland, and in Scotland they don’t say ‘pearls’: they say ‘perils.’ And perils is exactly what the beauty of a pearl is bearing witness to – it owes its very existence to the oyster being in peril. Read More